Putin, Xi gather with Asian leaders for talks defying West

SAMARCANDE – Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping gathered with other Asian leaders in the ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand on Thursday for a summit touted as a challenge to Western global influence.

Putin and Xi were being joined by the leaders of India, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and several other countries for the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in the Uzbek city on Thursday and Friday.

The main summit day will be Friday, but a meeting of the Chinese and Russian leaders later Thursday is set to be closely watched, with talks about the conflict in Ukraine expected.

Earlier on Thursday, the two first held separate meetings with leaders of ex-Soviet Central Asian nations. Putin sat down with the presidents of Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan while Xi met Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

Putin then saw Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, announcing that ties were “developing positively” between Moscow and Tehran, and giving his full backing to Iran’s application to become a member of the SCO.

Raisi told Putin that US-backed sanctions on both countries would only make their relationship “stronger”.

“The Americans think whichever country they impose sanctions on, it will be stopped, their perception is a wrong one,” Raisi said.

For Putin, the summit is a chance to show that Russia is not isolated internationally, at a time when Moscow’s forces are facing major battlefield setbacks in Ukraine.

Rare trip abroad for Xi

For Xi — on his first trip abroad since the early days of the coronavirus pandemic — it is an opportunity to shore up his credentials as a global statesman ahead of a pivotal congress of the ruling Communist Party in October.

The summit is also a chance for both leaders to thumb their noses at the West, especially the United States, which has led the charge in imposing sanctions on Russia over Ukraine and angered Beijing with recent shows of support for Taiwan.

Entry to Samarkand, a city of grand tiled mosques that was one of the hubs of Silk Road trade routes between China and Europe, has been restricted for days, with its airport shut to commercial flights. 

Security was tight across the city, with a huge police presence on the streets and armoured vehicles parked downtown.

Residents told AFP of their joy at hosting the meeting, pointing to Samarkand’s long history as an international crossroads.

“We are proud that so many leaders of various countries are gathering in our city. Samarkand from ancient times was a legendary city,” said 26-year-old Shakhboz Kombarov.

The SCO — made up of China, India, Pakistan, Russia and the ex-Soviet Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — was set up in 2001 as a political, economic and security organisation to rival Western institutions.

Much of the focus, however, will be on bilateral talks.

‘No-limits’ friendship

Besides Xi, Putin was also set Thursday to meet Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, then on Friday to hold talks with Indian premier Narendra Modi and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

It was not clear who else Xi might meet, although talks with Modi would be their first since 2019. China-India relations turned frosty over deadly fighting in 2020 on their disputed Himalayan border.

Formerly Cold War allies with a tempestuous relationship, China and Russia have drawn closer in recent years as part of what they call a “no-limits” relationship acting as a counterweight to the global dominance of the United States.

Xi and Putin last met in Beijing in early February for the Winter Olympic Games, days before Putin launched the military offensive in Ukraine.

Beijing has not explicitly endorsed Moscow’s military action but has steadily built economic and strategic ties with Russia during the nearly seven-month conflict. Xi has assured China’s support of Russian “sovereignty and security”.

Russia has in turn backed China over Taiwan, calling US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island this summer a “clear provocation”.

The two countries have also stepped up military cooperation in recent years, with China sending hundreds of troops to take part in military exercises last month in Russia’s Far East.

The defence ministry in Moscow said Thursday that Russian and Chinese warships were on a joint patrol in the Pacific and planning a live-fire artillery exercise at sea.  –AFP